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What High Dives And Roller Coasters Teach Us About Getting Comfortable With Career Risk

In "The Icarus Deception," Seth Godin teaches us how to overcome common fears that may be holding back our careers or our lives. Here's what he learned from conquering his childhood high dive.

I (at least part of me) was lucky enough to grow up at Camp Arowhon in northern Ontario. Deep in the north woods of Canada, I spent summers confronting what it meant to do what you wanted to do. That was a loaded obligation, because it meant you had to commit and then execute, without being able to blame the predicament of your choice on anyone else.

A highlight of the lake was the 24-foot-high diving board. Looking back, I think the diving board might have been as low as twenty-two feet, but regardless, it was incredibly high. Icarus high.

Painted white, made of almost-rotted wood, and ascended via twenty-one slippery steps, the diving board was a beacon to every kid who saw it. It was dangerous. Awesome in the best sense of the word.

The deal was simple: If you climbed up, you had to jump off. It was too tricky (physically and emotionally) to climb down.

Day after day, new initiates to the cult of the big leap would bravely climb up the tower. Then they’d get to the top and stop. They’d freeze in place, unable to move. Sometimes for hours. One kid once sat there for fourteen hours.

Here’s the key question: What happened between the time a kid started climbing the ladder and the internal system failure that occurred at the top of the board? Was there new information presented? When that kid was at the bottom, he was thrilled and excited. At the top, frozen.

Perhaps something changed. At the top, the newbie jumper saw something he hadn’t seen from the dock. Nothing visible changed, of course. What changed was the volume of the argument in the leaper’s head.

When you’re standing on the dock, part of the brain insists on going up. It’ll be fun/brave/heroic/daring/wonderful, the adventure-seeking frontal lobe says. The other part, the part that worries about things like belly flops and dying, that part is not sufficiently aroused to stop the jumper from going up the ladder. Later. Later, the lizard brain says, I’ll worry about this.

At the top of the tower, though, the dialogue changes dramatically. Death, after all, is apparently imminent. Now the other part of the brain, the one that’s often more powerful, speaks up and insists (demands) that this nonsense stop. It’s high. This is dangerous. This is insane.

Amazingly, after that first jump, the deflowered leapers always do the same thing. They get out of the water, run to the steps, climb right back up, and do it again. Safety zone adjusted, comfort zone aligned. For now. And the opportunity is to make it a habit.

The Truth About Roller Coasters
Everyone knows that you’re not likely to die on a roller coaster. It’s far more dangerous to drive to the amusement park than it is to get on the ride.

And yet. And yet even though we know how safe it is, a good roller coaster terrifies us from the first frightening hill until the relief at the end. That’s because it’s designed to do so. The twists and turns and noise and speed are designed to bypass our rational brain and go straight to the amygdala, our prehistoric brain stem, the part of our brain that’s hardwired to avoid danger.

We’ve built a culture that’s filled with virtual roller coasters.

The security theater at the airport is a cultural roller coaster, with the TSA using uniforms and hassle to (they hope) incite fear among some travelers and comfort among the rest. The senior prom is a very different kind of roller coaster, one designed to get a different response, to fill the not-quite-popular kid with just enough shame at the prospect of missing the event that he’ll go anyway, because it’s safer than not going.

Or consider the job interview, a high-stress situation that would be more effective if it had no stress associated with it—a lion isn’t going to eat you, and your fight-or-flight reflex isn’t particularly useful here. But that’s precisely why some misguided interviewers create the stress—they believe that it shows how you’ll perform at work.

The biggest cultural roller coaster of all is the one that pushes us to keep our heads down and comply, the one that is short-circuiting your art. This is the unspoken threat (the one we’re reminded of from first grade) that you’re just one misstep away from being fired, ostracized, thrown out, and exiled from the community. It’s not true, but your lizard brain doesn’t know that, any more than it knows that a roller coaster at Six Flags isn’t going to kill you.

None of this is rational. All of it is effective, because it touches our fear and shame.

—Excerpted from THE ICARUS DECEPTION: HOW HIGH WILL YOU FLY? Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright (Do You Zoom, Inc., 2012.

[Top image: Curly Pat via Shutterstock.]

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  • Dan Williamson

    One of his old books 'The Dip' pretty much covers all of this. 50pence on Ebay if you're interested...

  • Clynn

    Fast Company does itself no favors by publishing this mindless pap. Perhaps the rest of the book has something of value to say, but this seems to be a trite exhortation to overcome your fears and 'Just Do It'. Well thanks for the profound insight.

  • Chris Reich

    I like Seth Godin and have found most of his books very inspirational. I have a problem with high dives and roller coasters serving as career metaphors however. Those of us in the real world have to face career risk rationally.

    Certainly you won't die from taking that big creative leap, but after 3 million homes have gone into foreclosure in our still stalled economy, I resent those with parachutes taunting the rest of us to jump.

    Sure, risk is part of success but so is prudence. I meet people every day in my practice who have found the courage to make the jump but have very poorly thought out plans. The big success stories are outliers. Most who take the entrepreneur high dive do end up with at least a stinging belly and often a depleted 401k.

    Conclusion: There is nothing wrong with being cautious.

  • William Xifaras

    Chris, you make an excellent point: Prudence and well thought out plans are necessary, especially if you are entering a new venture. 

    What I like about the book is Godin's philosophy (excuse my paraphrasing) re limiting ourselves to serve others because that is what we've been trained to do.

  • Chris Reich

     Thank you, William. I don't see serving others as a limiting constraint.

  • JonYoffie

    This is a great lesson. Fear is an irrational emotion caused by the unknown and doubt. Deep breathing and meditation have helped me on many occasions.

    As for high dives, though, I've always thought perspective plays into the fear. From the pool deck, the distance from your eyes to the diving board is reduced by your height. From the diving board the distance is increased by both your height above the board and the fact that you don't just see the water's surface, but the bottom the pool, often farther below the surface than you are above it.But you're right. That first jump is always the hardest!

  • William Xifaras

    Excellent book by Godin. Just finished it on audio while commuting back and forth to work. The message resonated: We don't have to do what we've been brainwashed to do, we actually have a choice... and I agree.